What are the pros and cons of supervising others at work?
September 26, 2014 10:19 PM   Subscribe

What are the pros and cons of supervising others at work? I have never supervised others in my entire working career. Given my story beneath the fold, should I consider doing so?

At the not-so-tender age of 40, I find myself confronting a new (to me) issue at work: do I want to be a supervisor?

I work as a fundraiser for a large American university. I've previously worked in the corporate world. At each stop, I've generally entered at a low level, been promoted at least once or twice, and then left - three times to change fields and once for a significant pay raise for a job within the same field. I've never been promoted to a supervisory role in any of those jobs.

I would consider myself to be an average worker in most respects. I try to be courteous and professional with my colleagues and clients (and, now, the donors to the university with whom I work). I am punctual and reliable and I have a good track record of meeting my goals each year, regardless of what has been measured at each job. (In my current job, I am evaluated primarily based on dollars raised, but to a lesser extent also on visits with prospective donors.)

I find work to be quite difficult, and have since I entered the adult workforce. Few things in the corporate or fundraising world have come easily to me. I am a very slow learner and my technical skills usually lag those of my peers. What success I have enjoyed I attribute to good fortune (primarily a supportive and loving family and the timing of my entry into the workforce at a time of low unemployment) and my willingness to learn. I am much more of a "work to live" person than a "live to work" person. Consistent with that "work to live" ethos, I hold many positions of responsibility in neighborhood, religious, and community organizations (none of which, though, are supervisory).

My current job is good for me in that I enjoy getting to know my donors, finding out their connections to the university, and steering their philanthropy to the research projects or programs that match their interests and passions. While I co-teach a class twice a year on a particular fundraising topic that is part of the training program for new employees, I find that role to be very challenging, as I am a shy person who doesn't like being the focus of others' attention.

Earlier this year, I was tasked, with three colleagues, with organizing what was essentially an internal conference for our university's fundraisers. I brought no experience in event planning to this role, but we were able to put on a good conference that garnered positive reviews from attendees. This job also entailed more exposure to the organization's leaders than I'd had prior to that time. The conference is held annually and those who are tapped to plan it are generally perceived as future "management material." This is the first time in my career that I've ever thought that some sort of managerial or supervisory role might be in my future, and I am conflicted about whether I should be receptive to, or leery of, that possibility.

I don't have sense that a promotion to a supervisory role is imminent or even a good possibility, of course. Everything at this point is very hypothetical. As I think about my career over the next few years, though, it seems reasonable to consider this issue. As I usually do, I made a list of what I perceive to be the pros and cons of my possibly positioning myself to become a supervisor:

Pros:

1. More money (although, as a non-profit, our salaries are fairly modest across the board);
2. A way to demonstrate my commitment to the university, which might make my employer less likely to lay me off in a poor economy;
3. Fulfilling a "traditional" career arc that has one progressing from an entry level position to roles of increasing responsibility.

Cons:

1. Having worked with supervisors of varying quality over the years, I don't see that being a supervisor makes one any happier or, much of the time, any more committed to an organization.
2. I am leery of any additional time commitment that would be expected of me (although, to be fair, most supervisors I see at my current job don't seem to work appreciably longer hours than those they supervise).
3. I am deeply shy and uncomfortable with being the focal point of others' attention. I think I'd struggle with having other employees look to me for guidance and support.
4. Being a good supervisor presumably requires skills that I do not currently have. Learning new skills is usually a good thing, but I worry that, as someone for whom work is very much a challenge even now, a supervisory role would just be too much for me.
5. Most fundamentally, I've never wanted to be a supervisor. I'm not someone who aspires to simply be in charge, in the mode of some supervisors I've known. I'm not extraordinarily competent, in the mode of others. I'm comfortable being managed by others and I take some measure of pride in being a good worker who makes life pretty straightforward for those who have to supervise me.

In candor, I'd love to stay in my current role for as long as I can. I figure that, if I am fortunate in terms of health and the broader economy cooperates, I may very well have another 30 years in the workforce; why should I be in a rush to be promoted to a supervisory role? I struggle enough with work as it is, and yet my job pays well enough for me to live in a decent level of comfort. I'm not sure that I want much more out of my work life than what I already have. Professionally, I'm just not all that ambitious. This view seems naive, though, and I worry about being perceived as someone who is unwilling to do what is needed for greater good of the organization. I fear that an unwillingness to consider a supervisory role will make me more expendable than others.

I would like to ask those who have supervised others, particularly those who were reluctant to do at first, what I may be missing. Are there benefits to supervising others that I have missed? Costs? What skills are needed, and how did you learn them? Has it been, on balance, a good thing? I feel that my experience and temperament limit my ability to think expansively about this issue and I would welcome any input from those who've made this leap.

My throwaway e-mail for this question is reluctanttobeasupervisor@gmail.com.

Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
The pluses are usually more money, more control over things like your schedule, and control over broader priorities and projects. And you can delegate some of the boring and shitty work, though in return you get to do other kinds of shitty work like performance evaluations and budgeting.

The downsides are more stress, having to deal with hiring and firing, and honestly employees suck a lot of the time. Every time they fuck up you have to deal with it, and there is always drama. All those crazy AskMe questions where someone has weird issues? In real life the phone calls about going to rehab or getting divorced or going off the meds go to the supervisor, either directly or as a secondhand consequence.

I never got any training beyond learning as I went on the job and a little informal mentoring now and then, but I'm told that actual training for supervising is good because so many of the issues are entirely predictable. I know I've made plenty of rookie mistakes that could easily have been avoided.

You don't sound like you want to take that role on, and I suspect that your job security is better as a kickass worker bee than as a reluctant supervisor. If security is your primary concern there are other paths.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:04 PM on September 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


I am not currently a supervisor, but I have done the role a few times now in different minor capacities. #3 in particular in your "cons" list says to me you wouldn't like it, being the guiding force for your underlings is a primary requirement of the job.

I started in supervising years ago with some on-site management of a conference, and looking after summer students in my lab. And since then I've delegated work to juniors. It takes confidence in yourself and your know-how, and assertiveness. And the more subtle aspects of knowing how to work with different kinds of people, well that comes with time. There are also classes on that sort of thing.

I like supervisory roles because I like teaching and imparting my wisdom on juniors - it's an ego boost to me. I also like to give them a challenge and let them struggle on their own a bit, they are smarter than they give themselves credit for. But then I mostly work with highly intelligent people who have been screened for competency and sociability. There are weird personalities at times, but that's workable. Communication and interpersonal skills are something that you have to build over a lifetime though. Classes are available, but some are just naturally more adept than others.

My colleague J is very smart, but suffers from a lack of confidence and assertiveness. This is a problem as a supervisor. I worked under her on one job and found it hard to follow her wishy-washy direction, I ended up having to push her to provide definitive info and it was a stressful project. J was also made lead on another project, and one of the juniors assigned to her was very aggressive and cocky. The junior actually tried to bypass J's directions entirely, going up the chain of command to get "better" advice. She also tried to have J removed from the project and be instated in her place. It was a pretty bad situation, embarrassing us in front of our clients. J could definitely use some classes, but even with that she'll never become a managerial type.
posted by lizbunny at 11:23 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have no leadership qualities at all -- I am shy and I don't inspire greatness from people. But I've learned that I would much rather be a boss than be bossed. I hate being micromanaged and being kept track of. For me, being a supervisor means I get less of that. I get to make a lot of the rules rather than abide by someone else's preferences. Also, supervisors make more money.

Being a supervisor doesn't mean you have to necessarily be more technically proficient or more talented to those you supervise, although it helps. It's really about managing work flow, keeping everyone on track and helping solve problems. In a lot of ways, I feel like my job is to make the decisions that people might not like so my employees don't have to, and advise them on what to do when they are stuck. It's really about being a guide. A good boss will not be micromanaging every little thing they do and how they do it, just ensuring they are getting things done. A good boss will just make sure everyone understands their priorities and what's expected and keeps things organized. You get to be a "fixer" as a boss and finds solutions. If you want, you can be an idea person and push your team to do new things or improve what you're already doing.

The major downside, that I haven't really experienced a ton, is when you have a bad employee and you need to deal with that. It sucks. I've never fired anyone or anything that dramatic, but I have had to have serious "you fucked up really badly" talks. Part of it is sometimes taking responsibility for it because you need to be accountable for your people. Part of it is learning from there and making everything work better. Part of it is realizing you can't stay mad at your employee forever. It's all a bit annoying, but if you can hire good people and be trying to set them up for success, it should be rare.

I say, taking on new responsibility and bigger roles is always scary. But that's how you grow and develop. I've taken jobs I was a little scared to take. You have to do that sometimes or you don't go anywhere new. So I'd take the job. But that's just me.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:56 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


One of the first things I had to learn as a supervisor was that my performance would not be judged on how well I did individual tasks, but rather on my ability to build a team with the resources given and get the most out of that team. Does that thought sound intriguing or horrifying to you?

The other things I would consider are whether you will have budget for professional development/training for you and your team, and whether not being promoted will mean that you will become "expensive" for your position. I've found that long-tenured staff in entry-level positions are often the first to go when budget cuts occur.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:05 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


This makes me think that moving to a supervisory position might not be a good fit for you:
I think I'd struggle with having other employees look to me for guidance and support.
If you're a supervisor, one of the most important things you have to do is guide and support your team. If you think you would struggle with this long-term (it's perfectly OK to feel nervous about this to start with), then you are unlikely to be comfortable in that role, perhaps ever. Which is nothing to be ashamed of - I wish more people were self-aware enough to realise that they aren't actually good at everything and were prepared to work to their strengths. As a manager, I have an incredible appreciation for those of my team who are fantastic technically, know they are good in this role and are happy to stay in a technical role. One frustration I face semi-regularly is having to select people for team leader roles and the ones that seek these aggressively are often those that are worst suited for them. A competent person happy in their role is a delight for me, because I can let them get on with their job and give them as much freedom as possible to do so instead of having to manage them being grumpy because they want to move up into a position they can't do properly.

I wouldn't assume that becoming a supervisor makes you less likely to be cut if staff numbers have to be reduced - it's often the reverse, as it's easier to let people work with less supervision or put more people under each supervisor than to take away more 'productive' workers. By being a competent worker, you are likely to be seen as more valuable and less expendable than if you are a mediocre supervisor.

One thing you haven't mentioned is whether the supervisor role would give you more opportunities to exert influence, or if that is something you would value. For me, this has been the most rewarding part of moving into supervisory roles - the ability to have more of a voice in how things are done and to shape the future of the organisation. If this is likely and is something that interests you, think about whether it's worth it to you to put up with some aspects that you aren't so keen on.

I agree that managing underperformance can be a royal pain and is the worst part of a supervisory job, especially if you have to do it a lot. I'm currently very lucky, having a team of fantastic people working for me who are, in the main, very high performing, technically competent people and I see my primary job being to allocate them work and get out of their way so they can get it done, along with running interference and advocating for them when others try to stick their nose in. There are a couple of people in the same role in my organisation that have the opposite problem and I wouldn't have their job for any money - dealing with people who are not only marginally competent (at best), but wilfully so would not be something I could cope with. The point is that how hard a supervisor's job is is heavily influenced by the people they supervise - good workers are easy, poor performers can be soul-destroying (one such team has gone through 6 managers in three years).

Regardless of anything else, if you aren't confident in your ability and don't want to take on the role, then don't. If the topic comes up, explain that you are interested in staying at your current level for the foreseeable future and feel you can be of more benefit to the organisation in that role. Unless your manager is a fool, they'll appreciate your honesty and the fact that they are unlikely to have to manage your underperformance as a supervisor.
posted by dg at 5:15 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


The point is that how hard a supervisor's job is is heavily influenced by the people they supervise - good workers are easy, poor performers can be soul-destroying

This needs to be bolded, underlined, and lit up by spotlights. The year before was smooth and easy, but in the last twelve months I've had employees going through rehab, divorce, family issues, interpersonal conflict, burnout, and one case of outright malingering. Life happens, and sometimes these things come in waves, and that buck stops with you if you are the supervisor.

Even so, for me the increased autonomy and control make it worth it. At this level, I'm supervised in terms of broad targets and outcomes, rather than the tighter control that people at my level must exert over the technical and field staff at lower levels. If I have an idea about how to do things better, I simply implement it rather than grouching in the break room about how inefficient something is, for example. It's a good fit for me, and I expect that I'll be managing people in one way or another for most of the rest of my career.

But I didn't know that before I took on a supervisory role for the first time -- some things you just have to try out and see if you like it; if it's a bad fit you can always step back into a non-supervisory position. I know a lot of people who took on formal or informal supervisory roles, hated it, and moved permanently back into purely technical positions.

The one thing that I continue to grapple with is that my job requires me to supervise people doing physically dangerous work. We have good safety protocols, but I still really worry about someone getting hurt. That's presumably not going to occur in fundraising (though I'm sure that things happen, like a major donor groping someone, say), but as a supervisor you are going to have to make people take professional risks and sometimes things will go wrong, and it will come back on you to handle that.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:27 AM on September 27, 2014


I have been a project manager, and am currently a project lead with a varying number of people reporting to me, depending on the project. Do I love it? Eh, it has its ups and downs. Are there things about it that have been valuable to me? Yes, very much so. One of the most important things I learned - and maybe could only learn - by being a manager is that managers don't always have all the answers, either! I set timelines, budgets, tasks, etc. as best I can, but I now understand that things like that aren't set in stone based upon some objectively "correct" way of doing things - this was a really useful lesson to me, as it taught me that these things can be negotiated, and that communication is far more important than 100% immovable milestones. Weirdly enough, learning that I don't know all the answers and am just doing the best with what knowledge I have has given me a lot more confidence, both professionally and personally.

Another thing I really like about being a leader is that it gives me a chance to ensure that the people who report to me are treated as PEOPLE, and not as "resources." In the corporate environment in which I work, this is something that has always bothered me, and I like having the opportunity to carve out a space where my people are treated with respect and with the understanding that while their work is important to the success of our team, they are not their job and shouldn't be expected to give up everything for it. If you, like me, are a "live to work" type, you may also find this gratifying (this isn't to say I lead in a touchy-feely way, or that you should either - ugh, god forbid - but there definitely are approaches that are more humane than others, I think).

The biggest downside to me is that it's more difficult for me to get my own work done when I'm being interrupted all the time by the people who report to me AND the people I report to - and at least in my job, this happens pretty much CONSTANTLY. If I'm not careful about how I manage this, I can start my day trying to review, say, a 55-page document and not make it past the first page by noon, because I'm spending so much time fielding questions, serving as a liaison between different groups, etc. I really can't express how much I hate this part - you've got to find a good way of managing this - and doing so without getting snappish - if you're going to lead.

Like you, I have no real desire to "be" a manager, and I am not at all trying to work my way up the chain - however, on the whole I find that a nice spot somewhere in the middle is a good place to be. There are a lot of things I like about having people I'm responsible for, and I do appreciate having greater input and freedom to use my judgment in my projects. You may be surprised to find the same to be the case for you as well.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:38 AM on September 27, 2014


Know yourself.

I know that I do not have the patience to deal with other people's bullshit.

If you're happy where you are, then continue along. I'm an individual contributor and I like it very much. You can find other places in your organization to be a higher paid person, while still being an individual contributor, then aim for those.

But unless a supervisor in your organization is paid a shit-ton more, let someone else wear the brown-paper hat in your organization.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:00 AM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Some of these have been mentioned upthread, but this is my list:

Pros
1) you can offload lower level work/work you don't want to do. This means that you can focus more time on the work you want to do, develop other skills etc.
2) management is in itself a skill which can be transferred into other fields/jobs
3) you can have more input into the organisation & how it's run etc
4) you can be a really good influence on the people you supervise. If you've been doing the job for awhile, I guarantee that you have knowledge that's second nature to you, but will make you look like a veritable guru when you tell it to someone less experienced. Then you get this nice little ego boost of "hey, I actually know something useful after all!" mixed in with the more altruistic "hey, I helped someone get better at their job!"

Further to pro #1. You said you didn't want to be "in charge", and I get that you don't see yourself as a boss-type, and that's fair enough. But this means you get more control over your own work as well, and this can be quite a big deal.

Cons
1) the buck stops with you. You may find yourself having to fix problems you didn't cause.
2) related to (1), there may be tasks which only you can do, and that you wouldn't be saddled with if you weren't in a supervisory position (and these are rarely fun)
3) you can be caught in the middle - senior enough to be accountable, but not senior enough to actually change anything.
4) people are people, and some can be real pains to manage.

My advice? Don't be quick to rule out management, don't turn down any opportunities that come your way, even if they're intended for someone on the management track. If and when you get offered a supervisory role, consider what that particular role would entail and decide then. (But it's 100% fine to decide that management is not for you!)
posted by pianissimo at 7:35 AM on September 27, 2014


There is nothing cooler than being a supervisor with a vision that your team can achieve. There is strength in numbers.

There is nothing worse than being a supervisor without SIGNIFICANT authority over the day to day work and career paths of your reports. Ideally, you want to have primary power for hire, fire, raise and incentive compensation. See the postal worker thread to see how psychotic supervisors can get when expected to get results without that authority.
posted by MattD at 7:39 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


It might be helpful to read a bit about career orientations. Your description of yourself sounds like it fits "Getting Secure":
Getting Secure (GS)

Then there is my sister. She is a teacher, and she is quite happy at the prospect of being in the same career, with the same employer, for the rest of her life. She has no aspirations of becoming the principal. She is not interested in affecting change on a broader level. Instead, she's happy just to teach her class. She takes courses herself, partly out of interest but mostly to help her move into different salary brackets and not for the purpose of promotion. That's not to say she wants to stand still. My sister may not be have her sights set on the top, but she does want her career to move through the usual progression of most teachers: regular increases in salary and seniority based on years of experience and continuing education. And, while she may not need or want to be the shining star among her colleagues, she is hard working, dependable, and dedicated to her students – and, as long as she feels appreciated for it, she will continue to be committed to her work.

Key characteristics of GS types:
• Completely dedicated and loyal to the company
• Wants lifelong employment with predictable career progression
• Hard working and prefers a predictable work routine
• Likes to maintain a sense of order
• Resists change and outside ideas
• Wants to be a part of the inner circle for the sake of belonging

Key characteristics of organizations where GS types will flourish:
• Reputation for lifelong and secure employment
• Predictable patterns of advancement
• Well-developed middle management
• Rewards loyalty and conformity
Though you may also fit "Getting Balance." Either way, it might be helpful for you to realize that "not being ambitious" isn't automatically "naive" -- there are enough other people who feel the same way that there's a named category.

The idea of Career Anchors (pdf) might also be helpful.

Basically, knowing yourself well enough to be able to identify what's important to you -- maybe not necessarily what's comfortable, but what's important -- can be helpful in visualizing how you would like your career to develop.
posted by jaguar at 9:50 AM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Hey, I was there in my previous career. I would recommend that you go for it.

I was thrown into an office manager position in a hectic workplace when my supervisor left for another gig, because I knew the procedures pretty well. The pros and cons were a mixed bag, but it was definitely a learning experience!

I'm not a leader personality by nature, and if I wasn't the best office manager ever, I also wasn't the worst either. I did okay, I don't love telling people what to do all day, but It can be done. The essentials of management are intuitive, and I learned the basics from my previous boss, who was very good. I did it for a few years, and I eventually left to do something else that was more interesting.

The big pro for this job is that it isn't boring. Management can be really interesting. Okay, "fun" is not a word used often in this context, but getting all of the plates spinning, and all of the the pieces of the puzzle aligned is a really fascinating challenge, and when it all comes together you will get this exquisite problem-completion thrill, before going on to deal with the next headache.

The little cons pile up, mostly ongoing stress worrying about potential project disasters, and the annoyance of dealing more often with upper management. Speaking of annoyance, I was never really good at hiring or firing, so bring your peers to help do it in tandem, and leave your emotions at home.

2 other things I learned:

I felt more protective about my staff than I expected I would;

I came out having a lot more respect for The Sales Department, who were not so loved by all involved. I got to see how hard Sales worked, and they dealt with way more stress than I did. They made more money, but only if they delivered all of the goods on time. You or me could be a manager, anyone who isn't really stupid with a basic emotional maturity could, actually, but we're also replaceable if required. A good Sales Rep is really hard to replace.
posted by ovvl at 4:57 PM on September 27, 2014


Okay, here's my thoughts from watching folks in supervisory university positions:

1. Having worked with supervisors of varying quality over the years, I don't see that being a supervisor makes one any happier or, much of the time, any more committed to an organization.


Happier? No, I honestly don't think most of them are happier. A lot of my supervisors have told me that it is totally okay to not want to do the job. It's a lot of stress, especially if you deal with the public. As for the money, my current supervisor calls it "the big pennies." So unless it's a huge money step up, it's probably not worth it for that.

2. I am leery of any additional time commitment that would be expected of me (although, to be fair, most supervisors I see at my current job don't seem to work appreciably longer hours than those they supervise).


At a university, yeah, most of the time supervisors don't do a lot of overtime. The major bonuses that I notice are that supervisors can pretty much do anything they want and get away with it. I can think of ONE manager that shows up at 8 a.m. with the rest of us--all the other ones I've worked with show up at 8:15, or you know, whenever. And if you have the power, you're freaking golden/have job security up the wazoo unless you're caught stealing. However, being a middle manager is the stress without the power. And you REALLY need to notice if the person who will be your new boss is sane and reasonable or not. If they are not, don't do it.

The downsides are more stress, having to deal with hiring and firing, and honestly employees suck a lot of the time. Every time they fuck up you have to deal with it, and there is always drama.


Yeah. I don't know how a supervisor manages to do that last one, I think it is really hard and I could not do it myself.

"The biggest downside to me is that it's more difficult for me to get my own work done when I'm being interrupted all the time by the people who report to me AND the people I report to - and at least in my job, this happens pretty much CONSTANTLY. If I'm not careful about how I manage this, I can start my day trying to review, say, a 55-page document and not make it past the first page by noon, because I'm spending so much time fielding questions, serving as a liaison between different groups, etc. I really can't express how much I hate this part - you've got to find a good way of managing this - and doing so without getting snappish - if you're going to lead."

YES to this. My boss says this all the time and she can't get much done because we are usually short staffed and being asked weird questions we don't know about all day long. If you are shy, not a people person, and an introvert--it's draining.


I'm comfortable being managed by others and I take some measure of pride in being a good worker who makes life pretty straightforward for those who have to supervise me.

I honestly don't think this sounds right for you. I'm not sure who it IS right for, but it's a lot of stress and hell unless you are in a pretty quiet area, like tech support.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:53 PM on September 28, 2014


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